Some movies demand to be seen on the big screen. I’m thinking of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia, Andrei Rublev and yes, Apocalypse Now. And in the case of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece, now you can do just that.
Playing in AMC theaters everywhere, the latest cut of the Vietnam War story can now be cherished in IMAX with the latest in Dolby Atmos sound. Just when you thought this nightmare couldn’t seem any more real, Apocalypse Now: Final Cut comes along to blow your mind in a whole new way.
By this point, most of you will know how it opens. Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard is laying in bed; his chest hair as dense as the Vietnam jungle. Staring at the fan spinning above him, we hear the sound of helicopter wings playing over The Rolling Stones’ “This is the End.” Only, it’s the beginning. That’s the repetitiveness of war.
“When I was here I wanted to be there (home), when I was there I wanted to be back in Nam,” he tells the men who’ve just offered him a classified mission. For the next 183 minutes, Coppola makes it his goal to turn this hellish journey into an acid trip. Where he takes us is a whirlwind of surfing soldiers, painted savages, Playboy bunnies and napalm. Walter from The Big Lebowski may have had buddies who “lay face down in the muck,” but they didn’t have to do anything like this.
A young Harrison Ford has instructed Willard to find a former soldier who’s lost his mind in Cambodia. Chewing up the scenery as like he’d just come off a week of fasting, Marlon Brando plays Colonel Walter Kurtz with a bald head and the voice of the devil. Google maps “the asshole of the world” and you can’t miss him. This prompts Willard and a few men to hop on a boat and travel down river to find Kurtz and his tribe of native followers, kill him, and hopefully make it back with their balls and brains still intact.
It isn’t a spoiler to say that they don’t, just as it isn’t a spoiler to say that the bush has never felt more alive. Colors explode off the screen like hand grenades. Sweat sticks to the soldiers like flies. The looming hills seem to laugh at the men below and their insignificance. You get the sense that wherever the camera goes there’s more to be seen to the right, left, above and behind. It’s a feeling you don’t get in movies anymore.
That’s because this was shot on location and not a warehouse. CGI will never be able to recreate that row of helicopters, lined up in formation, confidently riding in to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Duh da na-na/Duh da na-na/Duh da na-na/Duh da Na Na! my crowd hummed on the way out.
For those who don’t go to see it on the big screen, Apocalypse Now: Final Cut will be coming to Blu-ray on August 27th. But why wouldn’t you see it in theaters? Now these larger than life characters can really be larger than life. For one, there’s Robert Duvall’s crazed Colonel sending his soldiers out to surf during an airstrike. “If I say it’s safe to surf this beach…it’s safe to surf this beach!” he yells. His approach to battle – and comedy – reminded me of Bill Murray in Caddyshack (au revoir, varmits!)
There’s also Dennis Hopper’s hippie photojournalist who suspiciously looks like Charles Manson, Laurence Fishburne’s out-to-lunch soldier and, of course, Martin Sheen’s Willard.
Willard is what ties the plot together. His psychological descent into madness mirrors the surrealist imagery. The more he grows an Instagram stalker-like fascination with Brando’s Kurtz, the more he obsesses over what Kurtz stands for: a man who has gone from a pawn in the game of war to a king. What he finds, however, is a power hungry man no better than his own commanding officers. It’s a reminder that there are no good guys in war. Everyone’s both a product and a victim of the horror.
This message is nothing new for Vietnam movies. Yet, you haven’t seen anything quite like this. Coppola’s film goes deeper into the jungle. And, not coincidentally, ventures deeper into the human condition. Through uncomfortably close close-ups and groundbreaking performances across the board, the camera turns faces into landscapes – holding shots long enough to turn blank faces into a battlefield of contrasting emotions. Are they doing what’s right? It’s a question the crew can’t even seem to answer.
There’s no question about the success of Coppola’s third cut, though. This one gives new meaning to “third times a charm.” Yes, its 14 minute cut-off takes away some of the depth of Redux, but don’t worry. The crisp restoration more than makes up for what’s been lost. My jaw dropped so often that my back teeth started to hurt, while the remastered sound will throw you into the booming bombs like a draftee thrown into his first battle.
It’s important to note that the same affect won’t stand up in your living room. Even so, the immortal one-liners sure will. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” “The horror,” and “Charlie don’t surf” are among the most popular. But I prefer one mumbled by Brando in the final moments of Apocalypse Now: “In war there are goats and there are animals.” Coppola has made a G.O.A.T out of filming animals and no other war movie has brought such spellbinding spectacle to such harrowing horror.
Apocalypse Now: Final Cut is a graphic yet gorgeous masterpiece about the Vietnam War. It's also perhaps the best movie ever made about the horrors of war.